If you think Ed Miliband was too leftwing you weren’t paying attention

13 May 2015
It is alarming how quickly the myth has taken hold that Ed Miliband lost the general election because he was too “leftwing”. On the one hand, it might seem a reasonable guess at all the reasons for our failure. Miliband is, after all, the son of one of the 20th century’s most distinguished Marxist academics. But in reality, anyone who says that Labour’s policy positions under him represented a lurch to the left simply was not paying attention.

Certainly we had some signature policies that might be characterised as leftwing: notably the promise to ban some zero-hours contracts (but not all, as over-enthusiastic campaigners sometimes implied); the pledge to scrap the bedroom tax; and the proposal to introduce a mansion tax. Calling these policies leftwing is partly an attempt to trash them. But the truth is that these were policies thatpolled well; and, as someone who knocked on thousands of doors in the course of the campaign, I can testify that they were popular on the doorstep.

But it is difficult to call a campaign leftwing when its keynote labour market policies were framed as anti-immigrant, and it proudly produced asouvenir mug about immigration controls. And, predictably, trying to out-Ukip Ukip proved to be a doomed endeavour. It did not stop Ukip piling up votes in Labour areas, or taking enough votes off Ed Balls to gift his seat to the Tories.

Scrapping the bedroom tax was eyecatching, but the Labour party was always too frightened to contest the main Tory narrative about welfare. We should have spent five years reminding people endlessly that 50% of the welfare budget goes on the elderly, another 20% goes on in-work benefits, and a relatively small proportion goes on the archetypal “work-shy scrounger”. But we were too terrified of polls, which revealed that theBenefits Street narrative was wildly popular, to undertake the painstaking work of challenging the Tory narrative. So it all culminated a few months ago with Rachel Reeves, our shadow work and pensions secretary, saying bluntly that Labour was “not the party of people on benefits”. That may have been a pragmatic position. It was certainly not a leftwing one, or even particularly compassionate.

But the fundamental reason why it makes no sense to characterise Miliband’s policies as leftwing is the failure to challenge austerity. From the beginning, our shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, believed that the most important thing was to match the Tory approach to austerity. If you strip out the mansion tax and other gimmicks, we made it clear that we were going to match the Tories cut for cut outside protected areas such as education and health. It may have been theresponsible approach, as Balls insisted. But it was scarcely leftwing. Yet commentators and former Labour ministers who are trashing Miliband for his supposed leftism go unchallenged. When the facts don’t fit their theory they ignore them.

They dismiss the fact that the majority of the Scottish electorate voted emphatically for a party with clear leftwing policies on, among other things,austerity and scrapping Trident. We are asked to believe that Labour voters in the west of Scotland voted SNP because of a mysterious mystic nationalism.

Miliband is a good man with progressive instincts. But the vitriol being poured on him by former Labour ministers perhaps has more to do with a sense of grievance that he did not consult with them enough than any extreme leftism in his policy positions.

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